Boy meets curl: How I survived the '90s and learned to love my hair

Curly Hair
Keith Wagstaff

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By Keith Wagstaff

Growing up, the cool guys on TV never had curly hair. Think Cory Matthews from "Boy Meets World" or Brian Krakow from "My So-Called Life." 

While guys named Shawn and Jordan rode motorcycles and swept straight hair from their eyes, their curly-haired counterparts fumbled their way through adolescence. 

The boys of "Boy Meets World": My cousins constantly teased me by calling me Cory Matthews. ©Touchstone Television / Today

I wanted that straight hair. I wanted to look more like Kurt Cobain and less like a gangly, not-as-attractive version of Lionel Richie. 

As with nearly every aspect of junior high, I approached my hair with abject confusion. At first, I tried combing it to the side, which probably didn't do much to distract from my peach fuzz mustache. 

My head in junior high, for some reason cut-and-pasted onto the body of Penny Hardaway.Today

Then came the hair gel. Back then, I didn't know that anything fancier than L.A. Looks existed. I would glop it in my head and then ... well, I'm not sure exactly. Mostly run my fingers through my hair and wait for it to curl indiscriminately, like those spongy dinosaurs that grow when you put them in water. 

At least that was better than the time I dyed my hair blond. Yes, I looked at NSYNC-era Justin Timberlake, with his golden curls like a brick of ramen noodles, and thought, "That is the style I want."

Eventually, I resorted to wearing a hat. No matter the situation, by junior year of high school, I always had a backwards baseball cap on. 

It was essentially a white flag disguised as a fashion statement. I wasn't ashamed of my hair —I just needed to shield the back of my neck from harmful UV rays, because I was always outdoors doing extreme stuff! (I wasn't).

The situation didn't improve much in college. That is also when I noticed that the curliness of my hair confused people about my ethnicity. My mother is Filipino, my father is white. The hair actually comes from the Irish part of my heritage, but that doesn't register with people, so I'm basically identified as whatever population is nearby. 

In the Astoria neighborhood of Queens, I'm Greek. Sometimes, people ask if I'm Jewish. Mostly, however, people think I'm Latino. People speak to me in Spanish all the time, assuming I know the language, which I do, but only well enough to apologize for not knowing Spanish very well. 

When I graduated, I realized that not only was I confused by my hair, but others were too. 

Dyeing my hair meant saying "Bye Bye Bye" to any chance of a date. Kevork Djansezian / Today

Today, they still are, but I'm feeling better about it. There was no magic moment when I decided that I liked my curly hair. It just gradually became impossible to imagine myself with anything else. 

I also got some much-needed advice from people who knew a lot more about hair than I did. When I was a kid growing up in Southern California, I always got a flat-top, or some variation of the flat-top, performed with a pair of clippers. This took place at a real barbershop — not some ironic facsimile, but a tiny neighborhood place with the twirling pole and everything. It had a good energy with friendly people who gossiped and joked with my mother as I sat wishing I was at home watching one of the Back to the Future movies, which, of course, featured a protagonist with straight hair. 

Then, with a paycheck from my first real job, I went to someone who didn't try to "solve" my hair by shaving it off. Over the years, as I moved neighborhoods and cities, I chose places that taught me not to fight my hair by trying to aggressively shape or comb it. 

"I love your hair" or "I wish I had your hair" were things — regardless of whether they were true or not — that I heard when going to someone new. I traded in the L.A. Looks for something less fluorescent. A gentle futz with some cream pomade was all it took. Now I just need a haircut every few months and I'm pretty happy. 

The adult, gel-free me.Today

That doesn't mean awkward situations don't occasionally come up. I was in Santa Monica about six months ago when I decided to get a haircut. 

It was a stylish place, one of those joints that looks like it was built in 1925, except in an alternate reality where everyone had tattoos. The guy pulled out his scissors and stared at my head like it was an alien artifact. 

"So, what are we doing today?" he asked.

It seemed less like a practical question then an admission of total ignorance. The look in his eyes told me he had no idea what he was doing. If I had smoke bombs, I would have thrown them on the ground and escaped like an ethnically ambiguous Batman. 

Instead, I tried to explain what I wanted. It didn't work out. My hair was uneven, poofy on the top, with straggling hairs curling out from the sides. 

I walked back to my car. I didn't have a hat to cover it up. I didn't want one. After all, it's only hair. 

Keith Wagstaff writes about technology for NBC News. He previously covered technology for TIME's Techland and wrote about politics as a staff writer at TheWeek.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @kwagstaff and reach him by email at: Keith.Wagstaff@nbcuni.com